The month of March was pivotal for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That month in 1957, he visited Ghana; in 1959 India; in 1964 he met Malcolm X; in 1965 he participated in marches at Selma; in 1968 he led a protest for Memphis sanitation workers, a dispute he supported until his assassination there days later.
So March is an opportune time to appreciate King’s final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
Following his May 16, 1967, anti-war speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” the King finished his fifth and last book. In its 50th anniversary, it shows a departure from more than a decade of King’s focusing almost exclusively on race relations.
“America is the richest and most powerful nation in the world,” he said. “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen, whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer.”
When the book was published five decades ago, about 2 million African-American workers were members of labor unions, King noted. (Today, there are 2.1 million African-American unionists, according to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.) King saw the link and the opportunity. Praising unions like the United Auto Workers, and people such as A. Philip Randolph (longtime leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), King said, “Most unions have mutual interests with us; both can profit in the relationship.
“The labor movement, especially in its earlier days, was one of the few great institutions where a degree of hospitality and mobility was available to Negroes,” he wrote. “When the rest of the nation accepted rank discrimination and prejudice as ordinary and usual — like the rain, to be deplored but accepted as part of Nature — trade unions, particularly the CIO, leveled all barriers to equal membership.
“Negroes, who are almost wholly a working people, cannot be casual toward the union movement,” King continued. “We will find millions of allies who in serving themselves also support us, and on such sound foundations unity and mutual trust and tangible accomplishment will flourish.
“There are undeniably points of friction,” he conceded, “for example, in certain housing and education questions. But the severity of the abrasions is minimized by the more commanding need for cohesion in union organizations.”
“Where Do We Go from Here” clarified that poverty in the United States and worldwide is not caused solely by racism and discrimination. There are millions of poor whites in the United States, King noted — more poor whites than poor blacks.
“If America doesn’t use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, is going to Hell,” King said. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”
King was almost wistful as he reflected on a sense of solidarity he’d experienced with a broad coalition of partners.
“After the march to Montgomery, there was a delay at the airport and several thousand demonstrators waited more than five hours, crowding together on the seats, the floors and the stairways of the terminal building,” he wrote. “As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shop workers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.”
King saw such grassroots unity as preferable — and more effective — than traditional politicking.
“The future of the deep structural changes we seek will not be found in the decaying political machines,” he wrote. “We deceive ourselves if we envision the same combination backing structural changes in the society. (Instead,) it lies in new alliances of Negroes, Puerto Ricans, labor, liberals, certain church and middle-class elements.
“A true alliance is based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge,” he said. “Equality with whites will not solve the problems with either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.”
And he extended an invitation to a new approach to achieve a better world.
“When we have our march, you need to be there,” King said. “You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com